A Scottish ‘Last’, with news of the recent death of the last Scottish lighthouse keeper.
Angus Hutchison, MBE, was the last lighthouse keeper in Scotland, and when he left the last manned lighthouse on Fair Isle (between Orkney and Shetland) in 1998, his departure marked the end of a 200-year tradition.
Fair Isle was automated on 31 March, 1998.
Mr Hutchison was keeper there for 36 years. The last light to be automated, it is now controlled (as are some 200 lights around the Scottish coast) from Edinburgh, by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB). The light still operates on Fair Isle, and its character consists of 4 white flashes every 30 seconds. It can be seen from at least as far as Orkney, about 25 miles away. Fair Isle is also notable as being the last to have its foghorn dismantled, in 2005, and all are now silent. So, this passing actually marks a number of Scottish ‘Lasts’.
Lighthouses were targets during World War II, despite being dark for the duration, they could still be activated for special purposes, such as providing navigation aids to convoys or aircraft:
The Fair Isle South lighthouse has endured some of Scotland’s fiercest weather and wartime bombing raids in its 100-year history. During an air attack in December 1941 the wife of an assistant keeper was killed and her baby daughter injured. Six weeks later the wife and daughter of the principal keeper were killed in a second attack.
The Bell Rock Lighthouse lies in the sea off Arbroath, some 11 miles (18 km) from the town’s harbour, and was completed in 1811.
2011 marks the bicentenary of the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, 115 feet (35 m) tall, designed by Robert Stevenson, and built by the effort of many local men, with the chief engineer being named as John Rennie.
Officials in Arbroath have organised a year of celebrations and a series of events called Year of the Light to commemorate the light, and will include a spectacular firework display, a yacht regatta, and a memorial service to those who lost their lives on the Bell Rock over the centuries.
David Taylor, whose great-great-great-grandfather Captain David Taylor was closely involved in the construction of the lighthouse, said the Bell Rock reef claimed countless vessels before the light was completed, saying ‘Following the great storm of 1799 on the east coast of Scotland, at least 70 vessels came to grief, if not on the Bell Rock itself, certainly on the neighbouring shores trying to avoid it. However, it wasn’t until 1806 – and not before the loss of the 64-gun man-of-war HMS York with all hands on board in 1804 – that permission to build the lighthouse was finally granted.’
Construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse was arduous to say the least. The reef it was to be built was submerged for much of the day, and work was severely restricted by the weather and the seasons. At high water, the reef is hidden about 12 feet below the water, and at low water, it stands 4 feet above. Storms meant that it was really on practical to work between April and October because the winter months were so stormy. Despite these problems, the lighthouse was completed in four years, becoming operational on February 1, 1811.
A few weeks ago, we noted the demise of a trawler, the Spinningdale, on one of the islands in the St Kilda archipelago, and that the decision had been made by the NTS to leave the wreck there until at least 2009 – having cleared it of potential contaminants – to avoid causing further damage in a recovery attempt.
The decicion to leave the wreck, rather then clear it immediately, attracted possible adverse comment, but made sense as it reflected the fact that wrecks are natural hazards and happen over the course of time. Like it or not.
There’s another potential source of controversy on the horizon now, as North Uist councillor Archie Campbell has called for the construction of a lighthouse on the archipelago. Mr Campbell said that with the recent reinstatement of lights on the Monach Islands, west of North Uist, the next step was for one on St Kilda. However, he also noted that the Northern Lighthouse Board had considered the idea, but that there were objections from conservationists.
We can’t find any references to a light being established anywhere on St Kilda in the past, so there’s no precedent for installing one, and with today’s navigation systems, it seems a bit late to think about installing one there now. While we do have the current grounding to consider, under circumstances we’ve not been made aware of, St Kilda does not appear to have a trail of wrecks around its shores, so is not really a location one would immediately think of as justifying the cost and environmental disruption that would be added by its installation.
I’m afraid this smacks of something that looks more of an attempt to make some opportunistic political milage, rather than deal with an actual hazard.